Google wants people in the office despite productivity gains at home | Business

Google software engineers reported something in a recent survey that surprised executives: They felt as productive working from home as they did before the pandemic.

Internal research from Alphabet Inc. has also shown that employees want more “collaboration and social relationships” at work, according to Brian Welle, vice president of human resources. Welle declined to provide exact numbers, but said “over 75%” of employees surveyed responded this way. Most employees also specifically looked for physical proximity when working on new projects.

“There’s something about innovative work – when you need that spark,” Welle said in an interview. “Our employees feel these times are best when they are together.

That’s part of why, despite the rebound in productivity, the tech giant is sticking to its plan to get most workers back to the office this fall. As Google deliberates on which individual employees will be able to continue working full-time from home and who will have to come, some staff are increasingly frustrated by the lack of clear direction and uneven application of the policy. . Internal message boards lit up this month when a senior Google executive announced he was going to work from New Zealand. Meanwhile, most lower-level employees are waiting to find out if they can move or if they need to come to the office.

Google’s return to office life is being watched closely. The search giant practically invented the luxurious Silicon Valley campus, with its plentiful free food, nap pods, and other perks. Google saves about $ 1 billion a year on expenses through remote working, but the company has invested significantly more in recent real estate expansions in San Jose, California, New York and elsewhere. And even Google has to contend with a staff unwilling to give up the comfort or economic benefits of remote working, especially with a white-collar workforce who had no qualms about rebelling against management.

Workers in many industries have decided to quit their jobs rather than give up virtual work. While some tech companies walked away completely during the pandemic, others that did not, like Apple Inc., also faced staff resistant to a comeback. A new cottage industry has sprung up around remote working as small towns try to lure wealthy tech workers from the shores. “Google and Apple have some of the best offices,” said Evan Hock, co-founder of, an online directory for remote work. “If they do, it’s safe to assume that everyone else will.”

Welle heads Google’s People Analytics, a division that tracks staff performance and opinions, and shared his findings last week as Google opened up its Mountain View headquarters to staff on a voluntary basis. In September, Google will ask most of its workforce to come back three days a week. When the pandemic hit, aggregate productivity measures quickly “plummeted,” Welle said. It wasn’t until May that those productivity numbers, tracked in self-reported employee surveys, rebounded – a pleasant surprise for Welle’s division. Google only shared survey figures from its engineers; the company also employs thousands of non-engineers.

Also in May, the company relaxed its return to work policy. CEO Sundar Pichai spoke to staff about a new plan for a “hybrid” work model: 60% of the company would return to its old offices three days a week; a fifth could ask to move to other offices; and another fifth could apply to work remotely full time. Google said it would notify staff of these decisions in August, and the company has implemented an internal tool for employees to submit and track these requests.

But this message, on occasion, has been awkward.

This latest internal spark was triggered in June, when Urs Hölzle, a powerful executive overseeing Google’s technical infrastructure, emailed staff to let them know their intention to move from California to New Zealand for the next week. at least a year. For many underlings awaiting approval to change their work situation, this unexpected news seemed offhand and unfair. According to Google’s policies, moving to cheaper cities can result in lower wages.

Several employees complained about Hölzle’s decision in discussion threads and on memegen, the company’s internal mailbox. The email was “very deaf,” said Laura de Vesine, a senior engineer who works under Hölzle. “Obviously there is a huge double standard. “

It was even the subject of a cartoon by Manu Cornet, a veteran software engineer at Google, known within the company for his comics that usurp its culture. Cornet recently left Google for Twitter Inc.

A Google spokesperson said Hölzle’s relocation request was approved last year but was delayed due to the pandemic. In his email, Hölzle said he would continue to work California hours. The spokesperson said Hölzle supported remote working and that there would be employees “at all levels” in his division who would be allowed to relocate or work remotely.

Google’s eighth employee Hölzle is known internally for building the teams that run its sprawling data centers and server farms. “I’m not retiring, I’m just changing places! Hölzle wrote in an email to staff, which was reviewed by Bloomberg News. In a previous May email, Hölzle noted that remote employees could be excluded from impromptu office conversations “where we know collaboration is happening”. CNET earlier reported on the emails and reactions from Hölzle staff.

In internal messages regarding Hölzle’s move, some frustrated Google staff resurfaced an email from a former colleague from New Zealand. This person wrote that she was leaving the company in April 2020, after being unable to obtain permission to work remotely from the country, according to a copy reviewed by Bloomberg News.

Welle declined to comment specifically on Hölzle, but said Google would be flexible with certain requests. “There is a possibility of exceptions,” he said.

In recent years, Google employees have gone to war with management over a number of issues. Staff complained that in response, company executives put up communication barriers and made decisions with less transparency. Meanwhile, executives complained that a more militant employee base forced them to withhold information.

Google pays lavish salaries to many employees and does not risk a mass exodus because of an office comeback. Yet some are leaving. Google engineer De Vesine considered leaving the expensive Bay Area during the pandemic, but did not get management approval. “The uncertainty over Google’s policies has left me stuck,” she said. “And I got tired of waiting.” She is considering leaving Google for a remote position at another company. De Vesine said she was not speaking on behalf of the employees’ union group, the Alphabet Workers Union, of which she is a member.

Welle pointed out that Google’s guidelines for remote working could still change. The proportion of employees she plans to return to the office is still an estimate. Google does not share the number of employee remote work requests that have been approved so far. But Welle called the overall employee reception the positive transition.

“So far, everything is fine,” he said. “Let’s see how this plays out.

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